The first time I ever entered Acacia Mall in Kamwokya was a few days to Christmas four years ago. I was so intimidated by the classiness of the architecture and the aristocratic snootiness of the shopkeepers there that I ended up buying sunglasses worth Shs380,000.
Needless to say, it was a pretentious purchase that I still regret. Acacia Mall creates an exotic shopping environment that borders on hypnosis. And it has something to do with the post-modernist design of the building.
Post-modernist architecture is a design of buildings whose main feature is a lack of formality or harmony. Robert Kiggundu, the chairman of the Architects Registration Board, says: “Postmodernism gravitates to ornament, use of different shapes, history and culture as an inspiration for design. It steers away from symmetry or single straight lines.”
Dr Assumpta Nagenda, a lecturer of Architecture at Makerere University, describes Post-modernism architecture as an attempt to treat the difficulties and problems created by Modernism architecture; problems such as the lack of variety. The style encourages inventiveness which tends to produce an aura of artistry in a building.
To fully appreciate Post-modernism, one must first understand modernist architecture that preceded it.
Modernist architecture is a style of building that sought to provide cheap residences to large numbers of people that had been displaced by World War I across Europe. The mission of the style was to build tall vertical buildings load-bearing capacity had been transferred from the walls and into the slabs and the columns.
They could stand several stories high without any walls. This enabled large numbers of displaced people to build simple walls on the different stories using cheap locally-sourced materials like wood, without compromising the structural integrity of the building at all.
Dr Nagenda describes Modernist architecture thus: “Modernists had a utopian desire to make the world a better place. Modernist architecture meets the needs of the masses not just the wealthy [Kit of relativism, 2007].”
The style was characterized by straight lines and right angles. The inspiration was simple geometric shapes, and was made up of three main parts: slabs, columns and stairways. This was made possible by the then just-discovered reinforced concrete. The design went on to gain popularity around the world and gave birth to the true sky-scrapper.
The style spread across the world and arrived in Uganda in the 50s with the first modernist building being Amber House on Kampala rd. The style is still popular in Uganda today. A story that was published in these very pages in March 2019 reviews the style in more detail.
“The Sheraton Hotel Kampala is my best example of Modernism. A perfect box and straight lines,” says Robert Kigundu who swears by Modernist architecture.
Ironically, the simplicity and minimalism that made modernism popular simultaneously caused an aversion to the style. A large section of architects found modernism too formal, too simplistic and too bland. So, around the 1960s, forty years after the birth of the style, post-modernism arrived. According to Kiggundu, many architects found modernism lacking in variety.
What is post-modernism?
Whereas modernism comes with simplicity of form and design, Post-modernism draws its inspiration from sophistication. The style is steeped in ornament, metaphor, show, history and reminiscence. Diverse shapes and angles are employed.
Ornate columns, decorative patios, over-the-top arches, rococo roofs and general elaborateness is what post-modernism tends to aim for. Oftentimes, this results in a tendency to exclusivity and stateliness.
“The architects who advocate for Post-modernism do not believe in symmetry or single straight lines. The style offers unique, complicated buildings with high-end finishes,” says Kiggundu.
Dr. Nagenda confirms that the distinct advantages of the Postmodernist style is that there is freedom of expression. She says, “The aesthetics are diverse. The style alludes to the return of wit, ornament and reference. The postmodernists refused to see architecture as being related to machines. They believed in ‘contextualism’every building needing to be designed based on the its special conditions including socio-cultural, functional and historical fields.”
Although the expression ‘Post-modernism’ may communicate an idea of futurism, the architectural style is nothing but. On the contrary, it more than anything takes us back in time to ancient Rome and Greece.
The ancients seemed to spare no penny in their pursuit of ornament and showiness in buildings. These are aspects that define post-modernist buildings. There is an unmistakable aura of imperishability in the chunkiness of Post-modernism, reminiscent of ancient Rome.
It all comes with undertones of majesty, a quality that never loses its desirability in the imaginations of man. This could explain why buildings like the Imperial Mall in Entebbe of Acacia Mall in Kampala are as intimidating as they are trendy.
Kiggundu says that lately, there is a tendency by many clients to prefer Post-modernism. He adds that there is even a section of architects who strongly believe in post-modernism and will introduce it at every opportunity. Indeed, several Post-modernist buildings have sprung up in Kampala and in some regional towns over the recent past. However, he is quick to add that the style does not appeal to everybody.
“There are some architects who still believe in the simplicity of Modernism. I can count myself as one of those architects,” Kiggundu says.
Is it taking over the skylines?
While Post-modernist architecture was introduced in the 60s, the buildings in Uganda that adhere to the style are only a handful. They are almost entirely from the last two decades. While the style has an uncanny ability to produce unusually attractive buildings like the URA Towers or the
Acacia Mall, Post-modernist architecture is wasteful and needlessly expensive.
Modernist architecture that preceded this style was based on the rejection of applied ornamentation, promotion of minimalism, keeping with the adage ‘Less is More’. Post-modernist architecture on the other hand threw caution in the wind and embraced all of this and more. It resulted in high costs of execution.
Kiggundu says, “The truth is, building single straight lines and right angles that identify Modernist architecture is cheaper than building arches and circles and other complicated angles that are found in Post-modernism.”
Oftentimes, because the style moves away from straight lines and right angles, it runs into complications of what architects call ‘buildability’. While someone might, for instance, want to incorporate a certain shape into a modern building, the execution might prove complex.
Mr Kiggundu says: “Many clients will even change their minds in the middle of the construction work and will often instruct the constructor to forego certain aspects of the plan,” he says.
This could explain why Post-modernist architecture has failed to catch on. It could also explain why the best examples of Post-modernism sprung up at the height of economic growth in the country.
Post-modernism in residences
Two years ago, pictures of General Eli Tumwine’s country home went viral on social media. The mansion was based on the traditional-hut concept. It was made up of several round structures merged into one big dream home. The house was complete with a large piece of writing in the front yard, so large it could even be read from a helicopter. Simply elegant.
Many people, however, suspected that the General, who is also a self-confessed artist, might have cut off the architect all together, in favour of his own creativity. The art was just too over-the-top. The point is that the General’s house is post-modernist, regardless of any biases. The style tends to do away with straight lines and general simplicity. Which sometimes makes it so much harder to execute.
The Kensington condominiums in Kyanja have aspects of Post-modernism. Those acute angles, slanting pillars and round ventilation holes are classic Post-modernism. Soon after the Kyanja homes were finished, many people were so enthralled by them they started imitating that style in apartment buildings. Post-modernism tends to stand out like the Mona Lisa.
Some well-known post-modernist buildings
Think of a very fancy and desirable building and chances are, it might turn out to be a Post-modernist building. The magnificent Skyz Hotel in Bukoto.
The new URA Towers in Nakawa. The UNBS Headquarters in Kira. The Imperial Mall in Entebbe. The imposing Acacia Mall in Kamwokya and many others.
All these buildings are not only very pricey they are also very beautiful and intimidating. That might explain their magnetism.